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Tootle the Engine and Character Formation

David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney

Tootle the Engine (text by Gertrude Crampton, pictures by Tibor Gergely) is a popular and in many ways charming volume in the “Little Golden Books” series. It is a cautionary tale even though it appears to be simply one of the many books about anthropomorphic vehicles—trucks, fire engines, taxicabs, tugboats, and so on—that are supposed to give a child a picture of real life. Tootle is a young engine who goes to engine school, where two main lessons are taught: stop at a red flag and “always stay on the track no matter what.” Diligence in the lessons will result in the young engine’s growing up to be a big streamliner. Tootle is obedient for a while and then one day discovers the delight of going off the tracks and finding flowers in the field. This violation of the rules cannot, however, be kept secret; there are telltale traces in the cowcatcher. Nevertheless, Tootle’s play becomes more and more of a craving, and despite warnings he continues to go off the tracks and wander in the field. Finally the engine schoolmaster is desperate. He consults the mayor of the little town of Engineville, in which the school is located; the mayor calls a town meeting, and Tootle’s failings are discussed—of course Tootle knows nothing of this. The meeting decides on a course of action, and the next time Tootle goes out for a spin alone and goes off the track he runs right into a red flag and halts. He turns in another direction only to encounter another red flag; still another—the result is the same. He turns and twists but can find no spot of grass in which a red flag does not spring up, for all the citizens of the town have cooperated in this lesson.

Chastened and bewildered he looks toward the track, where the inviting green flag of his teacher gives him the signal to return. Confused by conditioned reflexes to stop signs, he is only too glad to use the track and tears happily up and down. He promises that he will never leave the track again, and he returns to the roundhouse to be rewarded by the cheers of the teachers and the citizenry and the assurance that he will indeed grow up to be a streamliner.

The story would seem to be an appropriate one for bringing up children in an other-directed mode of conformity. They learn it is bad to go off the tracks and play with flowers and that, in the long run, there is not only success and approval but even freedom to be found in following the green lights. The moral is a very different one from that of “Little Red Riding Hood.” She, too, gets off the track on her trip to the grandmother; she is taught by a wolf about the beauties of nature—a veiled symbol for sex. Then, to be sure, she is eaten—a terrifying fate—but in the end she and grandmother both are taken from the wolf’s belly by the handsome woodchopper. The story, though it may be read as a cautionary tale, deals with real human passions, sexual and aggressive; it certainly does not present the rewards of virtue in any unambiguous form or show the adult world in any wholly benevolent light. It is, therefore, essentially realistic, underneath the cover of fantasy, or, more accurately, owing to the quality of the fantasy.

There is, perhaps, a streak of similar realism in Tootle. There the adults manipulate the child into conformity with the peer-group and then reward him for the behavior for which they have already set the stage. Moreover, the citizens of Engineville are tolerant of Tootle: they understand and do not get indignant. And while they gang up on him with red flags they do so for his benefit, and they reward him for his obedience as if they had played no hand in bringing it about. Yet with all that, there is something overvarnished in this tale. The adult world (the teachers) is not that benevolent, the citizenry (the peer-group) not that participative and cooperative, the signals are not that clear, nor the rewards of being a streamliner that great or that certain. Nevertheless, the child may be impressed because it is all so nice—there is none of the grimness of “Little Red Riding Hood.” There is, therefore, a swindle about the whole thing—a fake like that the citizens put on for Tootle’s benefit. At the end Tootle has forgotten that he ever did like flowers anyway—how childish they are in comparison with the great big grown-up world of engines, signals, tracks, and meetings!

From The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

David Riesman (1909–2002) was Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard University. Nathan Glazer (1923–2019) was professor of education and sociology at Harvard University. Reuel Denney (1913–1995) was professor of English and American studies at the University of Hawaii.

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